If you were to say to me “Sam, I want to visit a beautiful place with wide, tree-lined streets, an historic european feel, great food and a nice river to sit by when it’s sunny”, I’d say “Margaret, you should go to Vienna, it’s great”.
If you were to then say “Sam, you’ve known me for twenty years, please stop calling me Margaret. Also, I’m in Northern Thailand and I want somewhere a short plane ride away”, I’d say “Well then, Margaret, you should head over to Luang Prabang in Northern Laos, it’s really cool”.
There’s no way to describe the layout of the town without admitting it looks like a huge erect penis, yet not once did I hear anyone say “Utopia bar is kind of in the ball sack” or “There’s a nice cafe right at the tip”. We climbed the mountain halfway down the shaft and looked out over this huge natural phallus, but no mothers hid the view from their childrens eyes. Nobody blushed, there were no dawning moments of realisation or elderly gasps of mischievous delight.
The mountain, incidentally, is called Mount Phusi. That’s right. The place is sex mad and I feel like I’m the only one that’s noticed it.
There are two possible explanations.
Firstly, I’m travelling with my buddy Adam who has three years on me and so wants comfortable accommodation with plenty of soft blankets and a sitting room with music options that remind him of his youth. Inevitably guesthouse owners assume we’re a gay couple and give me a sly wink whenever we sleep in a little. I don’t mind this at all but it does mean – not to put too fine a point on it – that it’s been a bit of a dry spell anyway and my newfound and quite surprising sexuality isn’t helping matters.
Secondly, the whole thing is a massive inside joke on the part of UNESCO, the UN body that manages heritage sites like this with an iron fist. They changed the course of the rivers, engaged in a huge and destructive landscaping operation, and somehow convinced the locals to come along for the ride.
I’d be down with theory number two if I didn’t know that UNESCO is based in France and they wouldn’t find that kind of thing funny at all.
Luang Prabang helps answer the question “How much can I sweat?”. You find yourself walking down the main street (the urethra, if you will) nodding and waving at passers-by with your eyebrows raised in a way that says “fucking hot, isn’t it?”. If you take a corner too quickly you spray onlookers with a fine mist of sweat. My hair was sweating.
After five whole days of guiltlessly doing nothing, we headed North, firstly by three-hour bus to Nong Khiaw and then an hour by boat to Muang Ngoy. Both one-pub, one-street towns, the latter both muddier and, until they finish the road, only accessible by river. I decided that my new hobby is writing reviews for outlandish places that don’t exist – the cinemaplex in the next village, the floating starbucks that pulls in twice a day.
I say we did nothing – I had three conversations with a racist. An actual, real life one – not like that time my sister Kate and I convinced our gran that the shop on the corner was called the Pakistani shop. This one said things like “You’re not a Jew, are you? So why do you care what happens to them?” and “The blacks are a problem and the only solution is to deport them all to West Africa”. I mean, rhetorical flush aside, it’s a bold opener for a conversation with a stranger.
I was dumbfounded because whilst I know that people like that exist, it never really occurred to me that a person wouldn’t be deeply embarrassed about saying that shit. I mean, it just kept coming. Really incredible.
We’re spending a lot of time in minibuses, and say what you like about minibuses but they really get you close to the ground in a way that other, more comfortable modes of transport don’t. I feel like I know this country through the medium of crummy suspension. The roads – where they exist – are full of surprises. Every once in a while the road surfacing stops abruptly, leaves us with a rocky dirt track for fifty feet, then starts again.
Sometimes a bridge crosses a ford or a river and the road surface on the bridge is maybe 3 inches higher than elsewhere – and that’s just the way it is. Like, it just didn’t occur to anyone to fix it.
Anyway, I wrote some limericks:
I once met a woman in Pai
whose fanny was shaped like a ‘Y’
When I asked “What the fuck?”
She said “Prude? Just my luck!
If I don’t get some soon I might die!”
I met a strange man from Chiang Mai
Who said to me “Give this a try:
Blend all that you eat,
Put your arse by your feet,
Relax, push and maybe you’ll fly!”